As Was His Custom

Luke 4:14-21

14 Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and news about him spread throughout the whole countryside. 15 He taught in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 16 Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been raised. On the Sabbath he went to the synagogue as he normally did and stood up to read. 17 The synagogue assistant gave him the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, 19 and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. 20 He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. 21 He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.” (CEB)

As Was His Custom

Jesus and I have at least one thing in common. (It’s kind of nice to be able to say I’ve got something in common with Jesus). It is my custom to worship God weekly. Jesus went to the synagogue on the Sabbath, “as was his custom.” It suggests that worship is important enough that even Jesus needed to attend organized public worship at the synagogue once a week. This was his custom, his habit.

It makes me wonder why, for some people, it is not their custom. Oh, I’ve heard all kinds of arguments and reasons.

Some people say they don’t like organized religion. They say they can worship God on their own. Good luck using that excuse to Jesus whose custom was to attend organized religious worship services in the synagogue every week. Nothing in the Judeo-Christian tradition says the worship of God is a solo-only event. Yes, we can worship God on our own, but public worship with the gathered community has always been primarily important. Our faith is personal, but it’s not private. It’s communal. If organized religion was good enough for Jesus, what makes those Christians who think they don’t need to participate so special?

The excuses I appreciate the most—for the simple fact of their honesty—are those who admit that they’re just too lazy or tired to get up on Sundays because it’s their only day to sleep in. They know they’re not committed, and they don’t care. Worship of God is not a priority for them, but at least they’re honest about it.

Not too long ago, I actually had a guy introduce himself to me at a funeral. And he said he was introducing himself so I would know who he was in case I had to do his funeral. He’s a member of First UMC, but doesn’t feel like it’s important to come. In fact, when I invited him back, he smiled and said, “Probably not.”

Others say they’re “spiritual but not religious.” I just kind of stare blankly when I hear that one because I have no idea what they mean. I don’t think the people who say it know what it means. I think they just want to use words that sound ethereal and wispy. “Spiritual but not religious” doesn’t exist. Neither Judaism nor Christianity have ever allowed for any such idea. When Christians use the word spiritual we’re talking about things pertaining to the Holy Spirit of God who gave birth to the church. The Holy Spirit was poured out on the Day of Pentecost in order to empower the Church for the transformation of the world.

You want to talk about spiritual? We’ve got your spiritual right here in the church. We’ve got connection to God through worship, prayer, service, witness, Christian community, baptism, Holy Communion, repentance, forgiveness, songs, hymns, opportunities for generosity, Scripture, and even—on occasion—a decent sermon. Connection to God through means of grace is spirituality. But, believe it or not, it’s also religion.

Jesus had a custom of attending the public worship of God every week. In fact, it was at an event of public worship in organized religion that Jesus announced his ministry after he had been filled with the Spirit’s power through baptism.

Honestly, when you look at the early church, the only thing these Christians had going for them was this Spirit-filled ministry to the poor, oppressed, and neglected. They didn’t have a big membership roll. They didn’t have a building. They didn’t have a budget. They didn’t even have much of a staff other than a few apostles and leaders. All they had was the Holy Spirit and a mission to bring good news.

We have somewhat the opposite problem. We have members, we have staff, a building, a budget (that’s not yet passed, but we’re getting there), but do we have the power of the Holy Spirit?

Jesus returned to Galilee “filled with the power of the Spirit.” He chose to read from the Scroll of Isaiah and read chapter 61 verses 1-2a. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…” Jesus’ ministry was empowered by the Holy Spirit. Is ours? And how do we know? Whatever our answer ends up being, these are questions we need to ask ourselves often.

If our ministry is driven and empowered by the Spirit, there will be a kind of urgency to it. And it will look like the ministry of Jesus. Individual Christians and the gathered community of the Church should understand our purpose and mission in light of Jesus’ purpose and mission. Our self-understanding should be informed by Jesus’ self-understanding. The way Jesus understood his ministry should be how we understand our ministry.

So what did Jesus’ ministry look like? His quotation of Isaiah 61:1-2a is not an accident. It’s the definition of his ministry. It’s the core values and mission statement of his ministry. Jesus claimed to have come for this: “to bring good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (c.f. Lk. 4:18-19, NRSV). Luke’s Gospel makes it very clear—uncomfortably clear—that Jesus’ ministry is to the poor, oppressed, captive, and marginalized.

The message of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain in Luke differs from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit.” (c.f. Mt. 5:3). In Luke, Jesus simply says, “Blessed are the poor… Blessed are the hungry… But how terrible for you who are rich, because you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.” (c.f. Lk 6:20-25).

It’s challenging for those of us who are not identified by these adjectives to hear. To us, it can sound threatening. The idea that Jesus came to shred the very economic structures from which we benefit can be frightening. It requires courage to hear this message of what God means. It requires faith. The United Methodist Church’s mission statement is, to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. It’s that transformation of the world part that can scare us away from the mission of Jesus Christ. Transformation implies change. It points to a future that’s unknown.

And yet, to understand our mission—to recognize what God has given us to do in mission—is as important for us as it was to Jesus. Knowing our mission means knowing our purpose. Doing our mission means living with purpose.

We have to remember that the message here is ultimately good news. It’s really good news for all. We also need to remember that everything we have is from God. Jesus taught in other places that those who have been given much need to share with those who have little. Giving and generosity are spiritual matters: disciplines to which we are called by God. That way, justice, righteousness, and mercy are all served. It’s not only money, but time. The ministry of Jesus requires an investment of one’s self.

If we forget what the ministry of Jesus was about and focus on peripheral things, then we’re not really living the Spirit-filled life. The message of Jesus, and many of the prophets before him, was to call our attention to the plight of the poor. Through the prophet Amos, God accused Israel by saying, “…they have sold the innocent for silver, and those in need for a pair of sandals. They crush the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way.” (Amos 2:6b-7a, CEB). God then lists the crimes of the rich against the poor, even mentioning things like cheating the poor and unfair taxes.

This is good news even if it’s not easy. The truth of God’s message for us is that when we care for those who are poor by being present with them and meeting their needs, when we release those who are captives by working on their behalf, when we free the oppressed by breaking the destructive systems that hold them down, that’s when we’re living by the Spirit. That’s when we’re living the good news. That’s when we’re participating in the ministry of Jesus.

We benefit from this work of ministry, too. When we minister in this way, we’re building bonds of community, we’re making opportunities to love and to be loved, and we’re experiencing the life-giving Spirit of God by loving our neighbors as ourselves.

We need to remember the central focus of the Gospel of Jesus Christ—which is to say we need to remember what we’re about. The ministry to which Jesus was called compelled him to go forth in the power of the Holy Spirit to show God’s mercy to the poor, captive, downtrodden, marginalized, and oppressed. Through this ministry, Jesus transformed the world. Through this ministry, so will we.

It was the custom of Jesus to worship God each week with the gathered community. And it was the custom of Jesus to serve the poor every day of the week. What are our customs? And how might we need to refocus and rededicate ourselves to the ministry of Jesus Christ?

The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, and we are called to bring good news to the poor. We are sent to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

It’s time to roll up our sleeves.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

A New Name

Isaiah 62:1-5

For Zion’s sake I won’t keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I won’t sit still until her righteousness shines out like a light, and her salvation blazes like a torch. 2 Nations will see your righteousness, all kings your glory. You will be called by a new name, which the LORD’s own mouth will determine. 3 You will be a splendid garland in the LORD’s hand, a royal turban in the palm of God’s hand. 4 You will no longer be called Abandoned, and your land will no longer be called Deserted. Instead, you will be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land, Married. Because the LORD delights in you, your land will be cared for once again. 5 As a young man marries a young woman, so your sons will marry you. With the joy of a bridegroom because of his bride, so your God will rejoice because of you. (CEB)

A New Name

2010 was a difficult year for my family. I lost an uncle early. Then, in September, my 22 month-old nephew and Godson was killed in a car accident. The driver who killed him was driving twenty miles per hour over the speed limit, flew over a blind hill, and hit them as they were turning left at the bottom of the hill. And in the midst of this tragedy, as my family was grieving, friends, family, and acquaintances wanted to offer their comfort.

Unfortunately, many well-meaning people said things that inadvertently did the opposite. They meant to try and make sense out of something that was senseless, but their attempts only added to the pain and grief. There were people who said, Everything happens for a reason. God has a plan. Something good will come out of it, you’ll see! Just have faith.

We’ve all probably said those things at some point.

I’ll admit I wasn’t happy those people because, regardless of their intentions, their words denied the tragedy of my nephew’s death. Their words denied our grief as a family: my sister’s brokenness as a mother, my brother-in-law’s pain as a father. And it’s not only laity who say stupid things to grieving families, we clergy can do it as well as anyone. The pastor at their church said to me, I believe God called him home. And my thought was, You’ve got to be kidding! You think God caused this? Do you realize what my sister is going to think if you tell her that? Like any mother, she would think, “If that’s the case, then God should have shut up and left my son alone.”

There’s an element within the Christian Church in America that I find extremely uncomfortable. It’s a mindset. We’re embarrassed by grief, and we don’t want to experience it. Our aversion to grief is so severe that we shut other people down in the midst of their grief and pat ourselves on the back thinking that we said the right thing: the good thing, the Christian thing, even the Biblical thing.

The problem is these false platitudes only deny a person’s reason to grieve. They deny the tragedy. Denial of someone’s grief isn’t Biblical. Giving solid, well-meaning advice is what Job’s friends did and, as you might recall, they were proved the idiots at the end of the story.

Sitting with people in their grief and weeping beside them is Biblical.

It’s hard to believe the nonsense people often say to those who are grieving.

“God needed another angel in heaven.” Bologna! We won’t become angels, Scripture says we’ll judge angels.

“God has a plan, and good will come out of this. God called him home.” Bologna! God didn’t cause this! Death has never been a part of God’s plan. God’s plan has always been abundant life!

My nephew’s death was a tragedy precisely because it was an avoidable accident! It happened because a person made a reckless choice. She decided to floor the gas pedal of her car and see how fast she could take those curves and hills. She didn’t think to consider the fact that she might kill someone. It shouldn’t have happened!

The thing is, I hear words like these all the time at funerals. But every time those words are spoken, the tragedy is denied, the grief of those most profoundly affected is stripped away so that they’re left with nothing, and untruths about God are spread.

Every time I hear those words spoken, I can only assume I’m listening to another person who has never read the Psalms or the prophets. You see, the Psalms and prophets are full of an element of prayer called the lament. There’s even a book called Lamentations! But for some reason, the lament has become somewhat off-limits in “proper” Christianity. We think Christians should put on the brave face and be all about joy and happiness, never letting anything get us down because, you know, Jesus never wept.

(In case you missed it, that’s sarcasm. Very thick sarcasm).

You remember the story of when his friend Lazarus died, how Jesus didn’t cry. He told Martha and Mary, “Oh, God has a plan. God called him home. Don’t cry. Just have faith that good will come of this.”

(Again, sarcasm).

That’s not what happened. When you read the story (John 11), you see that the whole community had gathered around Martha and Mary and wept with them. They wailed because of their pain. When Martha told Mary Jesus wanted to see her, Mary got up and left the house. And everyone who was with her just got up and went with her. They assumed she was going to weep at the tomb, and their commitment to Martha and Mary as a community of faith was to simply be with these two sisters in their grief, no matter where they went to mourn.

When Jesus saw Mary, Martha, and everyone else crying, he started to cry so hard that the people marveled, “See how much he loved him!” (Jn. 11:36, CEB). You betcha Jesus wept!

It was a communal lament that acknowledged the pain and grief, and allowed it to be felt and dealt with as the community stood in solidarity with these women because of it.

Before healing from any tragedy can begin, the tragedy itself has to be acknowledged, the pain and anger associated with it has to be allowed and felt, and those around us need to sit down beside us and say, “I love you. I’m here with you. Whatever you need, wherever you go, I’m here with you.”

I say all of this because Isaiah 62 begins with unfamiliar territory for most of us. It’s a lament. It’s the prophet’s defiant cry at the injustice God has allowed to happen. “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.” (Is. 62:1, NRSV).

It’s a lament. A cry from the prophet for God to pay attention to their plight, to not ignore them or their grief any longer, and Isaiah isn’t going to shut up until God restores what is broken. He sees what could be and proclaims that vision as if it’s a reality right around the corner.

But first, the current suffering of the people has to be acknowledged. First, someone has to say, I know you feel abandoned and forsaken by God. I know your faith has faltered because you can’t see God’s presence anywhere. I know you feel defeated and your dreams are broken.

You see, until we allow the tragedy to be acknowledged, any words of hope we try to offer will sound empty and devoid of truth. Just as the crucifixion comes before the resurrection, so too grief because of a tragedy comes before any hope that we might survive it.

Isaiah’s lament reminds us who our God is, and how much more real our relationship with God can be as individuals and as a community. When we pray honestly, everything is allowable. Lament, anger, weeping, disgust, protest: these things are as much a part of our prayers as thanksgiving and praise. Nothing is off-limits to the conversation. Nothing is inappropriate. Nothing is expected to be held back.

In fact, it’s when we keep these things out of our conversations with God that we’re being untruthful, even unfaithful. Because that’s when we’re withholding a very real part of our lives from the God who loves us and desires to be present with us. But our initial reaction is to ball up these pieces of ourselves and try to hide them from God as if they’re not there.

We try to hide the reality of our need to lament because we don’t think real Christians should feel that way. And that false thought process is confirmed every time our need to lament is shut down by people who think they mean well, but speak falsely. They don’t want to feel our pain with us, so they deny it altogether, and thereby deny it to us.

But Isaiah’s lament acknowledges everything. Only after he has done so does Isaiah move on to a vision of hope. In fact, Isaiah dares to speak of the reality God should enact. He speaks the words that need to happen. Everyone saw Israel as downtrodden and defeated, but nations will see Israel vindicated.

God will give Israel a new name, which means a new reality: a new destiny. Abram’s name was changed to Abraham. The exalted ancestor became the father of many nations. Jacob was renamed Israel. The one who supplants became one who strives with God. A new name points to a new future.

Isaiah spoke of new names in terms of marriage. “You will no longer be called Abandoned, and your land will no longer be called Deserted. Instead, you will be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land, Married.” (Is. 6:3-4a, CEB).

I remember the days leading up to my and joy’s wedding. We chose October 13 as the date because it was the Saturday of my mid-fall recess from graduate school. I had to reschedule one of my mid-term exams so I could participate in the rehearsal. I went to class on Thursday, October 11, and left Durham, North Carolina sometime before 11:00 a.m.

I was SO excited. The drive took about ten hours because of some crazy bad weather. But Joy and I were incredibly happy to see each other that night. Our rehearsal was the next day, and the pastor kept telling us things like, “I really wish you two liked each other”; and “Stop kissing”; and “Save it for the wedding.”

But you have to understand that Joy and I hadn’t seen each other in a while. She had been living in Atlanta for an internship. I was in school at Duke. We hadn’t started dating until after I had graduated from Findlay and moved to Durham, but she was still at the University of Findlay. So our entire relationship as a couple had been long-distance.

We longed for the day we didn’t have to be apart anymore. We longed for the day we could forge our future together, side-by-side. And that day before our wedding, we were so excited it was almost torture that we weren’t married yet. We were almost there.

After our wedding, our futures were set on a new course. We would live our lives together. Whatever burdens came at us, we would bear them together. Whatever trials we faced, we would share them together. We would walk through life hand-in-hand, for better or for worse.

That’s the kind of imagination Isaiah has, and the vision he sees for Israel. It’s a new future as exciting, as joy-filled, and as beautiful as a marriage.

That joy and delight is the expected end of the story Isaiah offers us. But before that vision could be shared, Isaiah properly began with a lament. The prophet’s prayer spoke the needed truth, acknowledging the people’s pain. He couldn’t remain silent about the terrible reality he saw. Nor could he remain silent about the hope of his vision. But one rightly comes before the other. And through Isaiah’s words, we are given a lesson in honest prayer and the meaning of true community.

Honest prayer means we don’t hold back what we’re feeling as if God can’t handle it. I guarantee God can. God wants our relationship to be authentic and honest. Honesty is a part of God character, and it should be part of ours.

True community means we abide with each other and bear each other’s grief rather than deny it with well-meaning, but ultimately untrue, clichés. We need to acknowledge the grief and the griever. After grieving with them, perhaps we can walk beside them toward a vision of renewal. But first things, first. It’s only after we lament and grieve that we might find the courage – and accept the grace – to live by a new name and walk forward into a hopeful future.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

The Baptism Of the Lord

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

15 The people were filled with expectation, and everyone wondered whether John might be the Christ. 16 John replied to them all, “I baptize you with water, but the one who is more powerful than me is coming. I’m not worthy to loosen the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out.”

21 When everyone was being baptized, Jesus also was baptized. While he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit came down on him in bodily form like a dove. And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.” (CEB)

The Baptism Of the Lord

On the Church’s calendar, this Sunday is called the Baptism of the Lord. It’s always the first Sunday after the Epiphany on January 6. All the Sundays between the Epiphany and Ash Wednesday have an Epiphany-like flavor. They all tend to focus on revealing and manifesting – which is what Epiphany means – something about who Jesus is.

So during these Sundays the question we much ask ourselves is, “what does this say to us about who Jesus is?” There is a lot more than simple baptism at stake in the baptism of Jesus, not than any baptism is a simple matter. There are some very important theological points regarding who and what Jesus is that are at stake in this event.

People were filled with expectation about whether or not John the Baptist might be the Messiah. He looked the part. He wore clothes similar to what Elijah wore. His message was about repentance in preparation for the coming of God’s kingdom. He criticized the political and religious leadership. Messianic expectations were already running high in Jesus’ day. Several potential candidates had come and gone: Theudas and Judas the Galilean are mentioned as two such persons in Acts chapter 5.

When you look at history, it’s easy to see why. Israel was an occupied nation. Israel had gained independence from the larger Greek kingdoms surrounding them for about a century. Then, instead of relying on God’s protection, the King of Israel made the classic Israel political blunder and made an alliance with one of its bigger, more powerful neighbors to help protect them from the Greek kingdoms to their north and south. This time it was the Roman Republic.

The Roman army marched into Jerusalem in 63 B.C. and promptly declared the independent Kingdom of Israel a part of the growing Roman Empire. As an occupied nation, the Jews looked expectantly for God’s Messiah to intervene and reestablish an independent Kingdom of Israel. In other words, the people of Israel were in an unhappy state and were looking for a savior: a savior who could improve their current earthly situation.

But when the people asked John if he was the Messiah, he answered by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (NRSV).

John’s words take on a completely different meaning from what most of his hearers probably expected. The Messiah would be a person who comes with the power of God, not to destroy enemies, but to save a lost humanity. He would send the power of God’s Holy Spirit upon those who believe in him. He would sit in judgment of all people and separate the righteous from the unrighteous, and both would receive their respective reward.

As we know, Jesus was not the military-political-religious Messiah that many first-century Jews expected. He did not come to kill Romans, but to save everyone. He didn’t come to establish an earthly kingdom, but to bring forth God’s heavenly kingdom. What God’s Messiah came to do was bigger than anything Israel’s limited imagination could wrap itself around. It was bigger than Rome, it was bigger than planet earth. What God’s Messiah came to do was absolutely cosmic in scope, and still God’s plan envelopes the cosmos as well.

Part of this lack of understanding of the scope of God’s plan which the Messiah was to accomplish comes from their understanding who and what the Messiah was when he finally showed up. Different Jewish groups expected the Messiah to be different things, and the differences were usually based on what the particular group wanted the Messiah to be.

The Zealots wanted a military-political Messiah to crush the Romans and restore the Kingdom of Israel. The Essenes wanted a priestly-religious Messiah to restore the Temple. The Sadducees didn’t want a Messiah because they were already in charge of the Temple, and wanted to keep their power. The Pharisees expected two Messiah’s: one a military-political Messiah to restore the kingdom, and the other a religious-priestly Messiah to restore the Temple and Jewish religion.

Modern Judaism also speaks of two potential Messiahs: one as a suffering servant Messiah after the manner of Joseph, and a kingly Messiah after the manner of King David. Modern Rabbinic Judaism is the child of Pharisaic Judaism.

As it turned out, Jesus was neither the military-political Messiah, nor the priestly-religious Messiah the majority of Jews expected. Jesus didn’t come to restore the old kingdom or old Temple-based religion. Instead, Jesus came to make all things new: to establish God’s kingdom and reconcile all peoples and nations to God. The baptism of Jesus reveals to us who and what Jesus is.

When Jesus was baptized, the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove, and the voice of the Father thundered from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” These two verses are the first place in the Scriptures where God is revealed as Three-In-One. Christians believe God is one God, but God has revealed himself to be three Persons. Even though we call Jesus God’s Son, there has never been a time when God was not Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There are hints of it throughout the Old Testament, but here, it’s revealed fully.

First, the heavens opened when Jesus prayed, and he was addressed by the voice of God as his Son. This tells us that the origins of Jesus are not merely human. While Jesus is a human being in all the fullness of what that means, he is also a Divine being. Jesus is God’s Son, which means that Jesus himself is Divine.

Second, the Holy Spirit descended in bodily form. Jesus received the Holy Spirit, and God the Father addressed Jesus directly as his “Son, the Beloved.” We worship the Living God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God in three Persons. Jesus Christ is the Son, the Second Person of the Divine Trinity.

Third, in order for Jesus to be called the Messiah, which means anointed one, he had to be anointed. It’s at his baptism that Jesus is anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah. The Holy Spirit serves as the unction of the anointing of Jesus. The Holy Spirit was with Jesus in power throughout his earthly ministry.

John’s prophetic words about the Messiah also reveal to us the significance of our own baptism. John says that Jesus will baptize us with the Holy Spirit and with fire. After Jesus ascended into heaven he sent the Holy Spirit into the world in a new and powerful way on the Day of Pentecost. Baptism is by water and the Holy Spirit. At our baptism, we were baptized by water to symbolize the spiritual cleansing which takes place as the Holy Spirit comes upon us.

At baptism, the Holy Spirit is called down upon the baptismal water and upon the one who is baptized. It is in baptism that the Holy Spirit imprints upon us a mark which states that we belong to God. In several instances the New Testament speaks of baptism as sealing. It’s kind of like writing your name on the tag of a coat or shirt. The mark of the Holy Spirit imprinted upon us in baptism says, This person belongs to God.

The importance of the Baptism of the Lord and all the Sundays during the Epiphany season, the importance of searching the ways in which God reveals himself to us through Jesus Christ, is this: The Jews of Jesus day had a variety of preconceived ideas about what the Messiah would be and what the Messiah was coming to do. Most of these ideas were limited, having only to do with the people of Israel and the day in which the people lived. Many of the people, therefore, kind of missed the boat.

People today aren’t too terribly different. We have our own preconceived ideas about God and his Son Jesus Christ. The problem is that God’s ideas are always bigger than ours. God’s vision is always broader than ours. And God has a history of revealing a plan that is far and away beyond our expectations or imaginings.

Have you ever looked for something, hoped for something, and had a picture in your head of what it would be like, but then it turned out to be something completely different from what you thought?

Some people have a preconceived idea about what a marriage should be like. But when reality turns out differently than the fairy tale in their imagination, instead of learning to embrace the beauty of how much more a marriage can be, they disregard it as a failure that didn’t live up to their expectations.

Many people disregarded Jesus because he didn’t live up to whatever their expectations were, but the truth is that Jesus Christ is so much more than we could even hope to expect. Through the Scriptures such as this one about the Baptism of our Lord we’re able to see beyond the limits of what our human minds can imagine or comprehend.

God reveals himself to us in Jesus Christ. God didn’t send his Son, the Beloved, to be a political leader, a military leader, or even merely a religious leader. Nor did he send his Son to condemn the world or crush the people we don’t like.

God sent his only begotten Son to make all things new – to make us new. Jesus Christ came to bring us a baptism that washes us whiter than snow, to share in our humanity, to carry our sins upon himself, and to offer salvation freely to all.

Jesus has revealed God to us in ways that transform us, renew us, make us whole, and allows us to experience peace. God’s revelation to us in Jesus Christ his Son is much more than anything we could have imagined. It’s nothing less than healing from the brokenness of sin for all who call upon Christ’s name. This is the good news proclaimed in our Lord’s baptism.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Death and Resurrection

My church community has experienced a string of deaths lately, so I’ve gotten in quite a bit of preaching at funerals. As a pastor, I guide the gathered community through the worship service. As a preacher, I want to emphasize our hope in Jesus Christ simply and succinctly. In the United Methodist Church’s liturgy for the Service of Death and Resurrection, we allow room for others to share memories of the dead, and you’ll see that in the sermons. I preach, then step back and allow others to share. This kind of mutual participation in the worship of God makes for a beautiful celebration of lives lived in the embrace of God’s love and grace.

Below are the two most recent sermons I’ve given at funerals. The first was 26 December 2015 for a 110 year old pillar of our church family. The second was from today for an 80 year old musician and former choir director of First United Methodist Church.

Matthew 22:23-33

23 That same day Sadducees, who deny that there is a resurrection, came to Jesus. 24 They asked, “Teacher, Moses said, If a man who doesn’t have children dies, his brother must marry his wife and produce children for his brother. 25 Now there were seven brothers among us. The first one married, then died. Because he had no children he left his widow to his brother. 26 The same thing happened with the second brother and the third, and in fact with all seven brothers. 27 Finally, the woman died. 28 At the resurrection, which of the seven brothers will be her husband? They were all married to her.”

29 Jesus responded, “You are wrong because you don’t know either the scriptures or God’s power. 30 At the resurrection people won’t marry nor will they be given in marriage. Instead, they will be like angels from God. 31 As for the resurrection of the dead, haven’t you read what God told you, 32 I’m the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? He isn’t the God of the dead but of the living.” 33 Now when the crowd heard this, they were astonished at his teaching. (CEB)

God of the Living

I’m going to keep my words short because, in a moment, I want to give you an opportunity to share about Florence. What I want to do is speak to the Good News of Jesus Christ. One of the reasons we hold funerals in the Christian Faith is to witness to our hope and belief in the resurrection of the dead.

It’s a belief to which we confess in the creeds of the Church. In the Apostles’ Creed we say, “I believe…in the resurrection of the body.” In the Nicene Creed we say, “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”

Jesus’ own teaching on the resurrection of the dead is highlighted in his answer to the Sadducees when they to trick him. The Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection because they only accepted the first five books of the Bible as Scripture, and they didn’t see anything about resurrection in there.

I love Jesus’ response. He quotes from Exodus as proof of the resurrection when he says, “You are wrong because you don’t know either the scriptures or God’s power… As for the resurrection of the dead, haven’t you read what God told you. ‘I’m the God of Jacob’ He isn’t the God of the dead but of the living.” In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus finishes by saying, “To him they are all alive” (Lk. 20:38b).

When we Christians proclaim that God has destroyed death, what we mean is that God annuls the apparent victory death has over us. From our perspective, our loved ones die and they’re separated from us, but God has broken death’s power by giving us life on the other side of death. Jesus tells us that those who have died are alive to God. The one who holds the power of life makes us live again. God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.

We believe in the resurrection of the body, a physical resurrection in a body that is perfect and glorious. Until the day of resurrection, we live in the hope of God’s promises. We hold on to faith, and we trust that what God has said will, indeed, be.

For now, we grieve Florence’s death because, from our perspective, death is always a tragedy. And yet, we can celebrate a life well-lived. Grief can be tempered by hope that God will not let even the smallest of God’s promises fall to the ground unfulfilled. God is the God of the living. For to God, Florence is alive and well.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

There’s only one story I want to share with you before I invite you to share about Florence. She may have been a hundred and ten years old, but in one sense, Florence died young. That’s because she never thought she was old. Yesterday, at my family’s Christmas gathering, my sister-in-law told me that she had once had Florence in her physical therapy sessions at Solarbron. She said, “Florence was awesome. She rocked the physical therapy and then complained to me that she didn’t want to do ‘those old-person exercises.’”

So yeah. Florence died young. Sometimes age is relative to one’s perspective.

Now, I invite you to stand and share your own memories of Florence as we remember the life of this remarkable woman of God.

*   *   *   *   *   *

A Resurrection Like His, from Romans 6:3-5

In a moment I’m going to invite you to share your memories and stories about Lloyd. But before I do that I want to share with you the hope we have in Jesus Christ. One of the central teachings of the Christian Faith is a belief in the resurrection. In our Book of Worship, this isn’t called a funeral. It’s called A Service of Death and Resurrection. In fact, one of the reasons why we hold these services is to be reminded—even as we stare down the tragedy of death—that God has promised us life.

Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “…don’t you know that all who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore, we were buried together with him through baptism into his death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too can walk in newness of life. If we were united together in a death like his, we will also be united together in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:3-5, CEB).

Baptism was actually a Greek naval term, and it’s always been associated with death. The Greek word βαπτίζω simply means, to put under water. So, when the navy sank an enemy ship, they baptized it. When a ship was baptized, a lot of sailors were baptized with it, and died. The place where you’re sitting right now, in church architecture, is called the Nave. It’s the Latin word for ship.

In one sense, the church is seen as a ship weathering the storms: the tragedies—like death—that life throws at it. But in another sense, the church is like a ship that’s already gone down. Our only hope is in resurrection. Paul teaches us that baptism is symbolic death, and we who have been baptized have already been united to Christ in death. “If we were united together in a death like his, we will also be united together in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:5).

Paul’s words in Romans beg the question, what does a resurrection like the resurrection of Jesus look like? The reports of those who encountered Jesus after he was raised from the dead tell us several things. First, Jesus was raised in a physical body. He ate with his disciples. He cooked them breakfast over an open fire. He could be seen and touched. He walked beside people and held conversations with them. Thomas touched the scars left on his body by the crucifixion.

If our resurrection will be like that, then it gives us confidence the one we love and miss will be touchable again. The hugs we used to give and receive will be given and received again. We’ll have a body that we can know and recognize.

And yet, resurrection is much more than merely physical. Jesus, in his resurrection body, appeared in the midst of the disciples as they hid in rooms with locked doors. He moved freely, unbound by physical barriers. He went where he wanted to go, and appeared where he wanted to be. It tells us that his resurrection body was a perfect instrument of his will, as our bodies were meant to be. Resurrection is perfect restoration.

Jesus’s resurrection also tells us that there is more to God’s creation than what our eyes can see. He ascended into heaven after telling us that there is a place prepared for us not made with human hands. Everything humans make crumbles. Every house, every monument, every empire eventually comes to nothing. The fact that this place Jesus has prepared for us wasn’t made by human hands says it’s something different. It’s something eternal.

For now, we grieve the tragedy of death. And that’s okay, even necessary. But we grieve with hope because God has given us good news. Death is not the end. God has promised us resurrection to eternal life in a place not made with human hands.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Now, I invite you, Lloyd’s friends and family, to stand and share your stories and memories as we celebrate his life and the impact he had upon us.

Arise! Shine!

Isaiah 60:1-6

1 Arise! Shine! Your light has come; the LORD’s glory has shone upon you. 2 Though darkness covers the earth and gloom the nations, the LORD will shine upon you; God’s glory will appear over you. 3 Nations will come to your light and kings to your dawning radiance. 4 Lift up your eyes and look all around: they are all gathered; they have come to you. Your sons will come from far away, and your daughters on caregivers’ hips. 5 Then you will see and be radiant; your heart will tremble and open wide, because the sea’s abundance will be turned over to you; the nations’ wealth will come to you. 6 Countless camels will cover your land, young camels from Midian and Ephah. They will all come from Sheba, carrying gold and incense, proclaiming the LORD’s praises. (CEB)

Arise! Shine!

On this Sunday we celebrate the Epiphany of the Lord, which actually falls on January 6. For those of us in the Western Church the Epiphany is the celebration of the revealing of God’s mysteries to the Gentiles, the inclusion of the Gentiles as heirs to God’s promises, and also the inclusion of the Gentiles as part of God’s beloved people.

Isaiah speaks of the coming of God into the world as a brilliant light. The light—this gift of God—carries with it the power to transform and restore God’s people. What’s more, those who are considered outsiders are inevitably drawn in so that everyone, every nation, every people, will come to the light.

Before Isaiah preached this message, Israel had been through a long season of darkness and despair in their exile. Isaiah promises a season of light is coming. In Israel’s worship life, God’s coming in power is often described as the coming of light, or glory. God’s glory shines, and when God’s glory shines, Israel lives in the glow, and is itself a presence of light in the world.

My kids love learning about astronomy. So much so that our big family Christmas gift this year was an eight-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. In fact, after I drove in this morning, I stood in the parking lot and kept looking at the sky. Saturn, Venus, Mars, the moon, Spica, and Jupiter were all shining along the Ecliptic. It was amazing!

My children know that planets and moons don’t produce their own light. Sunlight is almost always touching them, but we don’t see the reflection of that light unless the stellar bodies are in the right place. It’s then that we can say they arise and shine. It’s then that their brightness shines in the darkness.

It is the same way with God’s people. God’s light has come, but are we reflecting the glow? We live in a world where, sometimes, all we can see is darkness. Isaiah prompts us to get up and move into the light. Arise! Shine! The light of God is right there, shining in the darkness. God has arisen upon us, and we’re told to look up and see. The world has shifted. It’s a move from a sense of God’s absence to the truth of God’s presence: from despair to hope, from dismay to well-being.

God has come into the world! God’s arrival transforms everything. Israel is told, “Arise, shine.” These are both imperatives. They are demands. It is a command for us to come in from the darkness into the presence of God’s glorious light.

We can arise and shine because our light has come and “the glory of the Lord” has risen upon us. The light in question is God’s and ours. It’s God’s light which shines for us. God has always been our only hope. The light – “your light” – is an intrusion into our world. It’s a beacon which draws us near and commands that we let the light of God shine through us. When we stand in the light, we share in its brilliance and reflect its brightness for others to see.

When we look at the first two verses of Isaiah’s oracle, we can see that God’s glory is mentioned in verse 1. Then it’s followed by statements of darkness. But not just any darkness, this is thick darkness. Then God’s glory is reiterated at the end of verse 2. The glory of the Lord brackets the darkness like a pair of bookends. Poetically speaking, the glory of the Lord contains and overwhelms the darkness. It’s the darkness that won’t escape from the light. Darkness is demolished by light. Darkness can’t exist in the presence of light. That’s why we’re told to get up and shine.

Isaiah’s words reveal that the nations of the earth will be drawn to God through the reflective beams we cast into the world’s dark places. Something new happens in verses 4-7. When we arise and shine, when we finally lift our eyes from despair, we’ll hardly believe what our eyes see. People will be drawn to God.

In Isaiah’s time, Jerusalem had thought itself abandoned and cast off. But Isaiah sees a time when all the nations of the earth will make the journey to be in a new and restored Jerusalem. It’s a time when the city of peace finally lives up to its name.

On the one hand, the sons and daughters of Israel will come, cared for, protected, and valued. These are the exiles that have been scattered far from Jerusalem. They had remained scattered long after the official return under the Persian kings. The appearance of the light brings an end to the exile. The poet-prophet imagines a world in which the abused and nearly forgotten are drawn back to their proper home among God’s beloved people.

On the other hand, the procession also includes more than the scattered Jewish exiles. It also includes “the wealth of the nations.” Israel was rarely one of the affluent nations in its sphere of influence. Most often Israel, in its disadvantage, stood in awe of its larger, more powerful, and prosperous neighbors. But God reverses this reality. The lowly are lifted up. The once-abandoned city will contain the wealth of the world.

It’s important to remember that Isaiah’s rhetoric has two sides. In part, it’s economic. The people’s misfortunes are reversed. But it’s also theological. The wealth of the nations is brought as an offering of worship. The passage begins in God’s glory in verses 1 and 2, and ends in God’s glory in verse 7. This is all about the glory of God, the light shining in the darkness, rising upon us so that we, too, might see and reflect its rays further, deeper, and allow others to see and come to God.

Like the nations Isaiah mentions, the wealth and gifts we bring to God every Sunday are signs that we submit ourselves to God’s coming kingdom. This is what is happening when the magi bring gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Jesus, the King of the Jews. When God is worshipped, all of God’s people prosper. When we allow ourselves to reflect God’s glorious light, everyone can find their way and be included within the fold of God’s chosen people. Everyone can bask in the glow of God’s glory.

God’s presence with us creates newness for the entire world. In Isaiah’s oracle, all—Jerusalem, the exiles, the nations—all, receive the gift of life. The purpose of God through his covenant with Abraham has always been the blessing of all nations, all peoples: all.

Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of this prophetic utterance. The Gospel of John teaches us that Jesus is our light. The opening verses say this:

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. 2 The Word was with God in the beginning. 3 Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being 4 through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.  (Jn. 1:1-5, CEB).

At the Epiphany we celebrate the fact that God has revealed and made manifest the mystery of salvation to those of us who, at one time, were not God’s people. It’s the light that has drawn us in. Now, our job is to let that light shine forth in us.

It means we have to lay aside the things in our lives that prevent God’s light from shining through us. Sometimes the darkness is more comfortable simply because we know it. But God is not content with darkness. That’s why we’re called to repent of our sins and sinful ways. We’re to let God’s light burn away the dark places in our hearts and minds.

Just as the rising of a star in the east drew the magi to seek the Christ child in Bethlehem, so the light of Christ draws the world to God. As Israel was meant to be a light to the nations and reflect the glory of God’s presence back into the world, so now are we. We shine in the dark places of the world by being present with people whose eyes have not yet seen.

In a sense, we are God’s stained-glass window. Each of us is like a single pane, each with a different shape and color. Yet when the light shines through us, we paint a picture and tell a story about God’s love and gift of salvation that the world cannot ignore.

That’s what happens when we let God’s glory shine in our lives. We are to be a light to the world around us, reflecting the light that has dawned in our hearts. Jesus Christ is our light. Arise, and let it shine forth in you.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!